The Importance of Changing First in Partnerships

In relationships with romantic partners, we inevitably get disappointed. Life didn’t offer most of us a class on how to live in a harmonious community with others. We approach disappointment and conflict as most people do… by blaming our partners. We build dysfunctional narratives about who our partners are or who they must be. All as a result of the frustrating things we witness within them. We might go to our friends with complaints about our partner and they might say, “That’s really annoying, I could never stay with someone who did that to me.” Dialogues like this only fuel our anger and resentment towards our beliefs that we are right in our partnerships. We believe that we deserve different words, behaviors, or actions that are more in line with what we believe. 

Here’s a secret:

Everyone is right in matters of the heart. The good news is that you’re right. The “bad” news is that… so is your partner. 

Most of us make very sensical arguments that, because they’re coming from our lived experiences, are always going to be right. Partner A is upset that Partner B doesn’t want to have physical intimacy. Partner B is upset that Partner A doesn’t put enough energy into nurturing emotional intimacy. No one is right and no one is wrong. The real culprit is doing work that it takes to unpack these relational dynamics and come to conclusions that satisfy both parties enough

So what can you do when conflict comes up? 

Change first

“Why should I have to change first? I’ve dealt with this long enough. It’s clear my partner doesn’t care enough to be changing…” You might be wondering these questions. 

The truth of it is that: 

1. You are the only person that you can change. You cannot and will not force anyone to change (and dynamics that attempt this often lead to burnout or deep resentment of each other). 

2. You have the power to become a person that acts in accordance with your values and to become the type of partner you want to be. If you’re acting in such a way that makes you curious about whether you’d be happy being with you in a partnership… changing your own words, behaviors, actions, feels like a great place to start. 

3. If you’re in a conflict that is gridlocked (a conflict that you keep returning to that you simply cannot get past on your own), you will never change the conflict without some action on your own. 

Why Change First

When you change first, you allow for a different dynamic to change the course of the outcome. Let’s say you’re upset that your partner hasn’t done anything to help you fix the broken garbage disposal. Realistically, you can either 1. Continue to voice your unhappiness that this hasn’t

been done by your partner yet, and ultimately become a broken record by reiterating the same hope without taking a new action (and grow in frustration yourself for having to repeat yourself) or 2. Decide that you’ll take matters into your own hands and hire someone to help you. Or learn some methods yourself. By taking matters into your hands, you’ve fixed the problem at hand that is causing distress and you’ve changed the course of the outcome by not continuing to voice dissatisfaction over and over. 

Of course, it’s a hope that everyone is in a partnership where they can reasonably assume that their partners’ preferences are cared for. But, the ability to recognize that we’re only human is crucial. Often, many of us lead busy lives where it’s hard to fully commit to doing what our partner is asking of us. The ability to extend grace to our partners in certain areas and take matters into our own hands by choosing to change first is difficult. It is also what will give us the power to change patterns in relationships, and therefore, create new functional outcomes. 

Lerner, Harriet. Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up. 2012

Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW, a licensed Chicago therapist who specializes in treating a variety of mental health disorders with evidence based treatments. To schedule an appointment with her or one of our other therapists, contact

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